‘It’s Hard to Know Who Is Who’ in War
First Sgt. Reinaldo Ortiz and the rest of his infantry company were in a firefight a few days ago, attacking a bunker in an Iraqi village. The pinned-down Iraqis, seeing they stood no chance, opted to surrender, and Ortiz watched in dismay at who emerged.
“There were six women,” said Ortiz, 39, of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. “There were little children. We had one woman who was nursing a baby. There was a soldier coming out. He was in his underwear. He’d been trying to change his clothes.
“It’s hard to know who is who.”
It was yet another example of the bewildering predicament American troops find themselves in as Iraqi forces disguise themselves as civilians, women are used as human shields and any vehicle driving down the road could be a suicide bomb.
On Tuesday, the day after at least seven women and children were killed when a vehicle they were riding in failed to stop at a military checkpoint, Lt. Col. Patrick Fetterman, a battalion leader with the 101st Airborne Division, lectured his company commanders on the rules of engagements.
If a soldier is threatened by a weapon or a vehicle, he is to “eliminate the threat,” Fetterman said.
“We do our very best to preserve the sanctity of these people’s lives,” he said afterward, referring to civilians. “But if they don’t act with common sense, we have to defend ourselves. When you’re told to stop in a war zone by heavily armed men and you don’t stop, those men will fire.”
The colonel added that troops “don’t have the option of just letting a vehicle approach.”
The task of distinguishing between civilians and Iraqi gunmen has been complicated by paramilitary forces who fire on U.S. troops at night and walk around unarmed and in civilian dress during the day. Intelligence officers with the 101st say some paramilitary fighters have been caught dressed as women.
U.S. troops are taught to open fire at anyone brandishing a weapon. If the person appears to be surrendering, troops are to keep their distance and order the individual to drop the weapon and get on the ground.
To cut through language barriers, troops have memorized commands in Arabic: “Stop!” “Show your hands!” “Get out of the vehicle!” To guard against memory lapses at critical moments, most troops have written the translations on their uniform sleeves.
“The rule of thumb is: If he doesn’t put his weapon down, he’s not surrendering,” said a company first sergeant. “In that case, take him out.”
Dug into fighting holes on the 101st’s perimeter, soldiers said they trained months ago at Ft. Campbell, Ky., on rules of engagement and on dealing with civilians in urban settings.
“Yeah, it’s the Four S’s,” said Spc. Kevin Drumm of Kenton, Ohio. They are:
Show force -- produce a weapon.
Shove -- or fire a warning shot.
Shoot -- first to disable the vehicle or individual, then to kill.
“The last thing we want to do is kill anyone,” said squad leader Staff Sgt. Niles Thornburg of Winchester, Ind. “But if they get so close that you feel your life is in danger, you have to defend yourself.”
For the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division, the question of when to shoot weighed especially heavily Tuesday because the women and children were killed at one of their checkpoints.
There were varying descriptions of what happened as the blue Toyota barreled toward the checkpoint. Among them was a first-hand account by a Washington Post reporter, who described an Army captain berating his men for reacting too slowly to stop the car. The matter is nder investigation.
“It’s a horror of war,” said Maj. Trey Kirby, 40, a field surgeon. About the same time that the checkpoint shooting occurred, Kirby, a soft-spoken Tennessean, was patching up bullet wounds that an Iraqi woman suffered during a battle for a village on the Euphrates River.
“The story I got from her was she was being used as a human shield so Iraqi soldiers could cross the bridge,” Kirby said. “She was crossing the bridge in front of Iraqi soldiers. Her injuries were to her buttocks. I’m assuming she was shot from behind, but I don’t know.”
Tankers describe war from inside an M-1A1 Abrams tank as something akin to a jumpy newsreel. The frame is narrow while moving at hyper-speed.
Sgt. Arnoldo Spangaro, a 29-year-old gunner on his company commander’s tank, said he trained his sights down an alleyway during fighting Monday and was amazed at what he saw.
“I had one woman, she had this kid in her hands. She was holding him out the door, and the kid had his hands up,” he said, a look of exasperation crossing his face. “He was, like, 2 years old.”
“You can’t see right, and you can’t see left,” added Sgt. Bryan Sage, a tank gunner who fired on a Republican Guard position Monday. “There were civilians all around. I don’t understand. If this was happening in my town, I wouldn’t be outside.”
“We were talking about World War II the other day,” Spangaro said. “All the enemies wore uniforms. Now, you don’t know. You have all these Somalias. You can’t tell who’s shooting at you, and by the time you know, you’re dead.”
Just as outraged are Marines and Navy paramedics who have been part of gun battles in Iraqi towns in which civilians were used as shields. And they say it makes the task of deciding when to shoot more difficult.
“Seeing the civilian casualties, especially the children, is heartbreaking,” said Navy corpsman Brian Strawh, 25, of Lake Isabella, Calif. “We do our best to treat them and patch them up. I have a 3-year-old daughter. I think of her every time I see the children being used so cruelly here. It’s a horrible thing. But so has been the life of Iraqi people here for three decades. Hopefully we can leave them something better.”
Marine Lance Cpl. Jonathan Hardy, 20, Huntsville, Ala., said that something his lieutenant had told him rang true: “He said when you see someone you think is a paramilitary hiding among civilians waiting to shoot at you, it’s your decision on whether to fire. But you’ll have to live with the fact that guy might shoot a buddy of yours if you don’t shoot. It’s Saddam who is putting the civilians out there, not us.”
Times staff writer Tony Perry with the Marines in Iraq contributed to this report.